Deficit panel spars over origin of debt

WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans on the congressional "supercommittee" each tried Tuesday to write competing histories of how the country came to be $15 trillion in debt.

To Democrats, it was the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Bush-era tax cuts and the GOP prescription drug plan for Medicare patients. To Republicans, it was a poor economy and growing federal spending.

Douglas Elmendorf, Congress' chief budget number-cruncher, urged them to stop looking at the past. "Really, I think the fundamental question for you is not how we got here, but what direction you think the country ought to go?" the director of the Congressional Budget Office told the 12-member deficit panel in its second meeting.

The committee, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, has until Nov. 23 to find at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts or revenue increases. If it fails, last month's debt-limit deal requires $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, split equally between domestic and military spending.

Elmendorf's message, supported by 47 pages of testimony and 15 graphs, was simple: Congress can't go back to the policies that produced budget surpluses in the past, because an aging population and rising health care costs have "changed the backdrop for budgetary decisions in a fundamental way."

With the total debt now more than the size of the domestic economy, "We are entering into territory that is unfamiliar to developed countries in the last half-century," he warned.

Elmendorf, who was appointed to his post by congressional Democrats in 2009, was careful not to endorse any particular path for deficit reduction. But he repeated that there were three necessary components to debt reduction: revenue increases, entitlement reforms and discretionary spending cuts. "The more large pieces of the puzzle one takes off the table, the bigger the changes need to be in the remaining pieces," he said.

Some of the bipartisan comity that marked the committee's first meeting last week started to wear off Tuesday. When Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., used his question time to present his own graphic showing the impact of Bush administration policies on the deficit, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., suggested that Becerra was "giving a speech."

Kyl then pushed Elmendorf for estimates of savings that could be achieved through cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse, and by selling unneeded property. Elmendorf was reluctant to give figures, but said he was skeptical those numbers could "begin with 'T' for trillion."

At least 57 business leaders and budget experts — including former senator Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who led a previous commission on the issue — signed a letter this week urging the committee to "go big" and look for at least $4 trillion in deficit cuts.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., urged his fellow committee members to "Go big, go long and go smart."